South Africa head coach Des Ellis says they were not going to risk missing out on a place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France next year by facing Mali unprepared.
Banyana Banyana completed a dominant 2-0 victory over Mali on Tuesday to secure a place in the Africa Women Cup of Nations final against Nigeria on Saturday, but more importantly secured their first-ever qualification for the World Cup.
Banyana cruised into the AWCON final with greater dominance than the scoreline suggests, giving Mali barely a sniff of goal in the 90 minutes and controlling the tempo of the game superbly.
Players were in tears at the final whistle, a mixture of joy and relief, after a number of heartbreaking failures to reach the FIFA showpiece over the last two-and-a-half decades had left deep mental scars.
But now, having qualified for the last two Olympic Games, they can finally take their place at the World Cup.
Ellis told the media: “We were always sure we could do it in this match. We didn’t want to leave it to a third-place match, we have been there before.
“We wanted to make sure that we get the job done and it is an amazing feeling.”
They will now have the chance to go for gold in Saturday’s final against Nigeria, whom Banyana beat 1-0 in the opening game of the tournament, but Ellis admits that their major aim has been achieved.
“Our name is on the list of teams to go to France and that was our ultimate goal, to make that list and then we worry about the rest. We have achieved what we wanted to achieve,” she said.
“Physically the body [is tired] … but mentally the team can still raise their levels, they have shown that. Nigeria have got better as the tournament has gone on. If we want to be champions we will have to raise our levels even more.
“Having qualified for the World Cup they [the players] will really be motivated. Making history twice in one tournament will be great for this group of players. We will prepare really well.”
South Africa have the best technical quality in the continental finals and have been tactically astute as well, which comes down to the planning of Ellis and her technical team.
The coach explained: “We analysed Mali really well, we knew that had a couple of really good players. We strategised to put [defender] Bambanani [Mbane] on their striker and she was magnificent.
“We made sure that we were in control of the game. We never really looked threatened, on 80 minutes [and leading 1-0] we felt we had this, we just had to stay focused.
“And then Lebo [Ramalepe] came up with the goal from far, which she does every now and then. I remember an Olympic qualifier against Kenya when she got the winning goal with something similar.
“We knew we were so well organised that after the first half we needed to keep playing our way as they hadn’t threatened us. You don’t want to sound arrogant, but we knew if we stayed on top of our game they couldn’t stop us.”
Ellis feels that the team’s success is down to much more than what the players do on the pitch, and having won back-to-back COSAFA Women’s Championship titles, there are many who have had their input into the success of the side.
“Everyone was magnificent, the players, the staff, the technical team, people who don’t usually get a mention. Each and every one has played their part,” she added.
“They have stuck to the game-plan and stayed true to what we do, which is putting the ball on the ground. It is a wonderful victory for everyone in women’s football.
“It’s difficult to describe, if people could see my smile covers my whole face. It is a victory for the whole of South Africa, for the wonderful support they have given us throughout this tournament.
“It’s for the coaches that have been here before, they have put a part into the team. And for players that are not here but have been part of the team through the year as well.”
With Nigeria also qualifying for the World Cup, one spot remains for Africa. The winner of the AWCON third-fourth place match between Mali and Cameroon will take that place.